Lydia Negussie grew up in the family of Ethiopian immigrants who urged her younger brothers to avoid walking too fast or otherwise risk drawing suspicion on the street.
Partly, the advice echoed mistrust of East African authorities some immigrants carry over to their new homeland. But it also reflected a sense that few look out for working-class people of color in this country’s legal system.
“I see so many people in my community who fear the law is always stacked up against them,” said Negussie, now a senior at the University of Minnesota.
At the U, Negussie cultivated a passion for making the legal profession more diverse and attuned to the needs of diverse communities. She works as a mentor in a campus program that aims to steer more students of color and immigrant backgrounds to careers in the law. Already an accomplished researcher, she dreams of digging deeper into the ways race, gender and the legal system intersect. This winter, Negussie was among a group of students who won the U’s Scholarly Excellence in Equity and Diversity, or SEED, award.
“We want to make sure we recognize our students who help to advance diversity on campus and beyond,” said Shakeer Abdullah, the U’s assistant vice president for equity and diversity.
Negussie was 4 when her parents arrived in the United States; they eventually settled in the south metro suburbs. Her nursing assistant mother and airport worker father instilled in her a belief that growing up in the United States was a rare privilege. Although she never doubted that, with time she became more aware of disparities that affected her community.
“I never saw people like myself on the news or as legal advisors,” she said. “I watched my parents more afraid of what the law could do to them than aware of how it can help them.”
She became the first in her family to go to college, where she chose as a major the sociology of law, criminology and deviance. She was a mentee and eventually a mentor through the U’s Emerging Leaders in the Law program. It seeks to encourage students of color to consider law careers by, for instance, introducing them to attorneys of immigrant and other diverse backgrounds.
“This program shows us what’s possible and the changes we can make in our communities,” she said.
Negussie also is on the board of University Student Legal Services, a student-run campus legal clinic that connects experienced attorneys with students who need representation. More recently, Negussie became a McNair Scholar, a program that supports first-generation and minority students in pursuing research. Negussie’s project focuses on the ways societal notions about masculinity inform the experiences of perpetrators of gender-based violence.
Abdullah says Negussie’s accomplishments straddling academics and community work make her stand out among some several dozen applications for the roughly decade-old SEED award.
Negussie wants to pursue a dual-track graduate program that would allow her to work simultaneously on a law degree and a doctorate; she wants to teach. But first she is taking a year off to do hands-on work in the local Ethiopian community and better focus her many research interests: media representations of immigrants, police use of force, access to mental health services and more.
“Growing up, I always heard I was a role model for my brothers,” she said. “Now I am learning not to put as much pressure on myself.”